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Why is this Arab-Israeli war different from all other Arab-Israeli wars? Because it’s not an Arab-Israeli war. Most of Israel’s traditional Arab enemies have checked out of the current conflict. The governments of Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia are, to say the least, indifferent to the fate of Hamas and Hezbollah. The Palestine Liberation Organization (Fatah) isn’t a player. The prime mover behind the terrorist groups who have started this war is a non-Arab state, Iran, which wasn’t involved in any of Israel’s previous wars.
What’s happening in the Middle East, then, isn’t just another chapter in the Arab-Israeli conflict. What’s happening is an Islamist-Israeli war. You might even say this is part of the Islamist war on the West–but is India part of the West? Better to say that what’s under attack is liberal democratic civilization, whose leading representative right now happens to be the United States.
An Islamist-Israeli conflict may or may not be more dangerous than the old Arab-Israeli conflict. Secular Arab nationalism was, after all, also capable of posing an existential threat to Israel. And the Islamist threat to liberal democracy may or may not turn out to be as dangerous as the threats posed in the last century by secular forms of irrationalism (fascism) and illiberalism (communism). But it is a new and different threat. One needs to keep this in mind when trying to draw useful lessons from our successes, and failures, in dealing with the threats of the 20th century.
Here, however, is one lesson that does seem to hold: States matter. Regimes matter. Ideological movements become more dangerous when they become governing regimes of major nations. Communism became really dangerous when it seized control of Russia. National socialism became really dangerous when it seized control of Germany. Islamism became really dangerous when it seized control of Iran - which then became, as it has been for the last 27 years, the Islamic Republic of Iran.
No Islamic Republic of Iran, no Hezbollah. No Islamic Republic of Iran, no one to prop up the Assad regime in Syria. No Iranian support for Syria (a secular government that has its own reasons for needing Iranian help and for supporting Hezbollah and Hamas), little state sponsorship of Hamas and Hezbollah. And no Shi’ite Iranian revolution, far less of an impetus for the Saudis to finance the export of the Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam as a competitor to Khomeini’s claim for leadership of militant Islam - and thus no Taliban rule in Afghanistan, and perhaps no Hamas either.
It’s of course true that Hamas - an arm of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood - is at odds ideologically with Shia Iran, and that Shia and Sunni seem inclined to dislike, even slaughter, each other elsewhere in the Middle East. But temporary alliances of convenience are no less dangerous because they are temporary. Tell the Poles of 1939, and the French of 1940, that they really had little to worry about because the Nazi-Soviet pact was bound to fall apart.
The war against radical Islamism is likely to be a long one. Radical Islamism isn’t going away anytime soon. But it will make a big difference how strong the state sponsors, harbourers, and financiers of radical Islamism are. Thus, our focus should be less on Hamas and Hezbollah, and more on their paymasters and real commanders - Syria and Iran. And our focus should be not only on the regional war in the Middle East, but also on the global struggle against radical Islamism.
For while Syria and Iran are enemies of Israel, they are also enemies of the United States. We have done a poor job of standing up to them and weakening them. They are now testing us more boldly than one would have thought possible a few years ago. Weakness is provocative. We have been too weak, and have allowed ourselves to be perceived as weak.
The right response is renewed strength - in supporting the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan, in standing with Israel, and in pursuing regime change in Syria and Iran. For that matter, we might consider countering this act of Iranian aggression with a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. Why wait? Does anyone think a nuclear Iran can be contained? That the current regime will negotiate in good faith? It would be easier to act sooner rather than later. Yes, there would be repercussions - and they would be healthy ones, showing a strong America that has rejected further appeasement.
But such a military strike would take a while to organize. In the meantime, perhaps President Bush can fly from the silly G8 summit in St. Petersburg - a summit that will most likely convey a message of moral confusion and political indecision - to Jerusalem, the capital of a nation that stands with us, and is willing to fight with us, against our common enemies. This is our war, too.
William Kristol is editor of The Weekly Standard; this article appears by arrangement with that publication